Last year I did a week long biography blitz
which was a favorite for readers
and also immensely enjoyable to research and write.
This year I’ve collected some more brilliant picture book biographies
into two posts.
Today — meet 7 extraordinary women.
Tomorrow — come back to encounter 7 remarkable men.
I hope you and your kids enjoy meeting these wonderful human beings
as much as I did.
Listen: How Evelyn Glennie, A Deaf Girl, Changed Percussion
written by Shannon Stocker, illustrated by Devon Holzwarth
published in 2022 by Dial Books for Young Readers
Gorgeous illustration work swirls with the energy and movement of music, the vibrancy and passion of one determined person, in this fabulous story of Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie.
Glennie was born hearing and was immersed in making music from the time she was just a young girl. But around the age of 11, degenerating nerves in her ears ushered her into the deaf community. Still, Evelyn longed to be a musician. She recognized that the vibrations of the percussion section were accessible to her and although most everyone told her it was not possible, one fantastic percussion teacher believed otherwise.
Thanks to the creative, insightful work of that teacher and Glennie’s own determination and talent, she went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music and launch a brilliant career as a percussionist, even being knighted by the Queen. This is one of my favorite biographies in this year’s blitz. Be sure to meet Evelyn with children ages 4-5 and up.
Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas
written by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Loveis Wise
published in 2022 by Harper
Georgian-born Alma Woodsey Thomas grew up relishing the shapes, pigments, and joys of nature in the gardens surrounding her home, and she continued to celebrate color all her life.
With a degree in art from Howard University, Alma chose to invest the majority of her adult life teaching art to Black students who were typically deprived of art education in their segregated schools and neighborhoods. Thomas brought enormous creativity, dynamism, skill, and passion to her teaching.
At age 70, she retired from teaching and became a full-time working artist. Her brilliant abstract paintings, ablaze with color, captured the eye of galleries, museums, and the public. One of her paintings became the first piece by a Black woman to be hung in the White House.
“Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than man’s inhumanity to man,” Thomas once said. This book, in both art and text, embodies that philosophy, surging with jubilant color and shape and lyricism. Come meet Alma with children ages 4 and up.
Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight: Patsy Takemoto Mink and the Fight for Title IX
written by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Toshiki Nakamura
published in 2022 by Quill Tree Books
If any of your daughters plays sports in school, you have Patsy Mink to thank, in part, due to her work in passing Title IX, opening doors for women to pursue their passions, interests, giftings, and athleticism.
Born in Hawaii to Japanese-American parents, young Patsy was taught a Japanese saying – Fall down seven times, stand up eight – a maxim meant to evoke determination and persistence.
Patsy leaned on that motto throughout her life, as a child during the Great Depression, as a Japanese-American under suspicion during WWII, as a young woman experiencing segregation and closed doors due to her ethnicity and gender. Mink went on to pursue law and politics, became the first woman of color in the U.S. Congress, and co-sponsored the Title IX bill which became law in 1972. Mink also sprang to the defense of women athletes when lawmakers threatened to remove sports from under the auspices of that law. What a burgeoning of women’s sports have taken place since then!
Written with clarity and energy, this story is accompanied by amiable illustration work that adds a great deal of warmth and ease. Come meet Patsy with children ages 5 and up.
Like a Diamond in the Sky: Jane Taylor’s Beloved Poem of Wonder and the Stars
written by Elizabeth Brown, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander
published in 2022 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Some parts of our world seem so intrinsic, we might never wonder about their origin. That includes, for many of us, one of the most familiar children’s songs, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Here is the woman who wrote it for us.
Jane Taylor was born in 1783 and grew up in the English countryside where her parents schooled her and her sister in a wide variety of subjects from anatomy to astronomy to literature at a time when many girls were not given much of an education at all.
Jane loved both nature and poetry and began creating homemade books at a young age. She became so invested in reading and growing intellectually, it was quite scandalous! Women weren’t supposed to pursue these things! Eventually, though, she was able to publish her poetry and a children’s novel. Along the way, she wrote the poem that she called, “The Star,” which was set to the music we’re so familiar with — an old French folk song — about a decade after her death.
Text and art dance together here, infused with beauty and illuminating the historical era of Jane’s life, making this book a gentle pleasure. Come meet Jane with children ages 4-5 and up.
Sanctuary: Kip Tiernan and Rosie’s Place, the Nation’s First Shelter for Women
written by Christine McDonnell, illustrated by Victoria Tentler-Krylov
published in 2022 by Candlewick Press
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, young Kip Tiernan lived with her grandmother, a woman who already had 10 children of her own, but who always kept a large kettle of soup on the stove to dole out to anyone who knocked on her door, and whose generosity overflowed in any number of other ways to those knocked about by life’s hardships. Her kindness imprinted on Kip’s heart.
As an adult, Kip worked at a community shelter in Boston called Warwick House. It was there that her eyes were opened to the unique burden of homeless women, who were at the time barred from shelters. Why were there no shelters for women? Turns out this was a population many people did not believe existed.
Kip set to work and in 1974 opened a women-only shelter called Rosie’s Place, the first such shelter in the country. She went on to work for health care for those on the street, food distribution, and permanent housing. The artwork in this book exudes strength, while also incorporating bountiful, curving, embracing lines that portray the magnanimous welcome of Kip. Meet this compassionate woman who fought for justice for those on the margins, with children ages 5-6 and up.
Taking Off: Airborne with Mary Wilkins Ellis
written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
published in 2022 by Margaret Ferguson Books, Holiday House
Any biography by Emily Arnold McCully I will snatch up, and this one, again, introduces us to someone fascinating, and does it with sparkle and those gorgeous watercolor paintings.
Mary was enamored by flight from the time she was a little girl. Her father, also keen on all things aeronautical, indulged her interest, buying her a ticket for a ride with a stunt pilot when she was just 8 years old, and okaying flight lessons when she turned 16.
When WWII saw German planes begin bombing British cities, the Air Transport Auxiliary was founded and civilian pilots, including women, were implored to help transport planes from factories to RAF bases all over England. It was an enormous task requiring quick learning, nerves of steel, and keen pilot skills.
Mary was accepted into the program and loved every minute of it.
After the war, Mary went on as a flight instructor, the owner of an air taxi company, and the manager of a small airfield. She also had a fine time competing with her racing car. This fascinating, charismatic person is brought to vivid life via McCully’s brilliant biographical skills and lovely artwork. Don’t miss out on meeting Mary with children ages 5 and up.
Mae Makes a Way: The True Story of Mae Reeves, Hat and History Maker
written by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, illustrated by Andrea Pippins
published in 2022 by Crown Books for Young Readers
In the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, there is a display centered around the millinery business of Mae Reeves. This colorful book tells the story of her long, creative, compassionate, groundbreaking life.
Born in Georgia, Reeves learned to sew as a child, creating fancy costumes for her dolls. A lifetime of hard work also began in her childhood. As a young woman, she joined the wave of Black folk pursuing their dreams in the North, and enrolled at the Chicago School of Millinery.
Reeves not only had a knack with a needle and thread, she had a heartfelt desire to bring beauty, care, and dignity to customers from the ordinary to the famous, a deep well of both justice and joy, and the strength to pursue business as a Black woman when this was mostly unheard of. Come meet the inspiring Mae Reeves with children ages 7 and up.
Come back tomorrow to meet seven remarkable men.
You can find hundreds more exceptional biographies on my list here.
There are plenty of names there you’ll recognize,
plus lots of new people to meet.